Coach Kelton made a great impression (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
Last night's first-ever dinner with the coaches for season ticket holders was a truly great event that I do hope becomes an annual pre-training camp tradition. Just to be clear, the event was open to all season-ticket buyers, and all were made to feel very welcome.
Of course, I never shy away from getting a chance to visit the Chrystie Fieldhouse with all the great pictures of former Lion players and coaches, game balls from historic wins, and other memorabilia.
The grilled buffet was very good, and whoever is responsible for the brownies deserves a medal!
Each of the eight tables was full and everyone was in a friendly mood.
All of the coaches I saw were very outgoing, introducing themselves and talking with the fans. New defensive coordinator Coach Aaron Kelton was extremely outgoing, as was a very friendly wide receivers Coach Aaron Smith. (And by the way, I have been remiss in mentioning the great job Coach Smith did last year bringing along some of the new receivers, especially Nico Gutierrez. He is a very good and very young coach with a nice future ahead of him).
The crowd actually was made up more of former players than just random fans. Most of the people there seemed to basically know one another which added to the relaxed mood.
Head Coach Norries Wilson gave a quick but thorough assessment of each unit of the team, mentioning key names along the way.
Starting on defense, he talked about the guys who will need to compete to make the defensive line better. He named Conor Joyce, Lou Miller, and Eli Waltz but seemed to pinpoint Brian England as a key factor; if he improves, the line will be very good as it gets anchored by the all-ivy candidate Phil Mitchell on one side and England on the other.
Wilson singled out Calvin Otis in the secondary, but the focus was on Andy Shalbrack who Wilson says had a good spring and will have to lead the defensive backfield.
Then the coach made the unusual move of lavishly praising strong safety Kirk Weller. He said Weller had as good a spring as you can have and he's looking forward to seeing him get back on the field this week.
At linebacker he talked about Alex Gross and Drew Quinn, but generally was brief about that squad.
When Wilson talked about the tight ends, he specifically pointed out that he personally spent time coaching Andrew Kennedy one-one-one. Then he talked about Clif Pope and how the coaches have been working hard on boosting his confidence.
Even though he didn't say it in so many words, there is definitely some excitement, or at least satisfaction, in the fact that this will be the most veteran offensive line Columbia's had in many years. Wilson talked a lot about how he "left Ralph DeBernardo alone this summer," but kept tabs on Brandon Veldman, who as he said at the Ivy media day, he called on the phone last week and felt he had matured. He mentioned fellow junior Evan Sanford would be the center this year, and another junior John Seiler got a mention as well. With 3 juniors and two seniors< (he mentioned the other senior, Mike Brune, as well), on that offensive line, you can understand why getting the third junior Veldman to mature is important.
During his comments, Wilson said Shane Kelly, Millie Olawale, and Paul Havas would compete for the starting QB job, and the other coaches backed that up informally during some of the dinner conversations. In fact, one or two of them said the competition would last all season. But during the formal comments by Wilson he did mention all the excitement about Jerry Bell, thus making him the ONLY incoming freshman he acknowledged by name. Coach Wilson tried to temper some of that excitement by reminding everyone that Bell has a four-inch playbook he'll need to start learning first.
He mentioned Ray Rangel and Jordan Davis at running back, but also Zack Kouroma and Leon Ivery. He said Ivery was someone many of us may not have heard about, leading to the speculation that perhaps we will be hearing from him from now on. It's possible Ivery needed his freshman year to fully recover from his high school injuries and now he is ready to emerge. Coach Wilson also talked about a "few freshmen coming in."
At wide receiver he of course mentioned Austin Knowlin and pointed out that there are many ways to get him the ball other than down-the-field passes. We could see more reverses and screens to him this season. He mentioned Nico Gutierrez and how they're looking to get him back if he recovers from knee surgery. Taylor Joseph got a mention, but Derek Jancisin was singled out for having the right size and being the kind of big blocking, possession receiver the Lions have been lacking.
When asked about special teams, the coach insisted he would put the best players out there whether they were starters or not. It seemed like he was fine with letting Knowlin continue to return kicks, but he again wants to relieve Jon Rocholl of having to do the placekicking and punting duties. Wilson definitely wants Rocholl to continue to punt, where he has a great chance at going from second team to first team all-ivy, but he mentioned his hope that either Joe Stormont or Mike Siebold will make a campaign at kicker.
There were some other interesting key comments. Wilson actually began his speech by reminding all of us how the players on this team all play very hard and don't quit, which I think has become the signature of the Wilson era so far that will translate into more wins soon. Of course, this is also exemplified by the fact that so many players have stayed on the team and we now have well over 100 guys on the roster. Another general comment Wilson made was his hope not to have to continue to play so many freshmen.
On a personal note, I spent much of the evening talking to some great Lions, some who played for Lou Little and Buff Donelli and some a lot younger. I was humbled by the fact that so many of them read this blog regularly... I hope I don't let them down.
I also spent some time chatting with some of the Columbia administrative staff who will again be helping me line up some great halftime interviews for this season. Some of the names we batted around were pretty exciting, so stay tuned for more details on that as we approach the season.